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The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Amanda Ripley shares what she learned while studying pre-collegiate education in three foreign countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. The quality of education in any country reflects - for better or worse - what the adults in each country value most. For example, in Finland, rather than "trying to reverse engineer high-performance teaching culture through a dazzlingly complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis," as in the United States, education leaders ensure high-quality from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher training programs. Unlike in the U.S. the education of children is entrusted only to "the best and the brightest" teachers who demand academic rigor and best effort.

In a country such as South Korea where that is not the case, ambitious parents enroll their children in hagwons (highly intensive, after-school for-profit teaching centers) to ensure that they will pass the country's stringent graduation examination, "the key to a successful prosperous life." In 2011, parents spent $18-Billion on these cram schools. Ripley calls this system "rigor on steroids," a "hamster wheel" that has created as many problems as it has solved. In 2010, one Hagwon teacher - Andrew Kim - earned $4-million and in South Korea is renowned as a "rock star teacher." Most of his teaching is done online. Thousands of students are charged $3.50 an hour. They or their parents select specific teachers -- not hagwons -- with selections based entirely on how well the instructors' students score on the national exam.

As for Poland, its public schools seem to accomplish much more with less than do the other two. As in Finland and South Korea, however, parents have high hopes and great expectations for their children and generously support well-trained teachers, a rigorous curriculum, and a challenging national examination for all graduating seniors. Ripley was surprised to learn that "sports simply did not figure into the school day" nor does athletic competition between and among schools have any appeal. "There was no confusion about what school was for - or what mattered in kids' life chances."

I think the title of Ripley's book is somewhat misleading. Public school education in Finland, South Korea, and Poland does not produce smarter students than do schools anywhere else but they [begin italics] do [end italics] seem to produce students who are better prepared to compete in what Ripley characterizes as "an automated, global economy" in which competitors must be "driven to succeed" and have learned -- during their school days -- how to adapt in a "culture of rigor."

As she observes in the final chapter, "The stories of Finland, Korea, and Poland are complicated and unfinished. But they reveal what is possible [in the United States]. All children must learn rigorous higher-order thinking to thrive in the modern world. The only way to do that is by creating a serious intellectual culture in schools, one that kids can sense is real and true. As more and more data spills out of schools and countries, and as students themselves find ways to tell the world how much more they can do, these counternarratives will, I hope, be too loud to bear."

After reading these concluding remarks, I was again reminded of the "10,000-hour rule" revealed by decades of research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University. With rare exception, those who invest (on average) 10,000 hours in deliberate, highly disciplined practice (of almost anything) under expert supervision can achieve peak performance. If a student spends (on average) five hours a day in a classroom for 40 weeks a year for twelve years (grades 1-12), the total is 12,000 hours.

To repeat, the quality of education in any country reflects - for better or worse - what the adults in each country value most. What does the performance of students of U.S. public schools - in international competition -- tell us about what their parents value most? How well prepared will these students be for competition with students from other countries in the "an automated, global economy" to which Ripley refers, a business world in which competitors must be "driven to succeed" and have learned - during their school days -- how to adapt in a "culture of rigor"?
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
For anyone interested in education this book is a must read.
It is a devastating account of American education in particular, although many other countries including Great Britain, come out of the analysis equally badly.

Amanda Rigby's book examines the dramatic improvement in the education of Poland's pupils, why on the basis of the famous PISA examinations (these test problem-solving rather than memory) pupils in China, Finland, Korea, Canada and Japan, score far better than their counterparts in America Britain, Germany and France. Pupils in the former no longer need to use calculators, work much harder and are taught in classrooms free of technological gadgets (on which far too many teachers are dependent). She also states that teachers in these schools are genuine professionals held 'in high regard by pupils, parents and employers.

Amanda makes the point, as have others like Professor David Blake, that children tend to do well in schools where they are expected to succeed and where the school has a clear vision and mission. Expect failure you'll get it.
She makes the crucial point-if only teachers would do as she suggests-that if pupils are given rigorous work they will on most occasions perform accordingly. She adds-how true this is-that in 'all too many schools low expectations are often rewarded'.

I have a Finnish daughter-in-law. She confirms everything Amanda Ripley says.

Today, Britain, America continue to slide down the World Economic Forum's ranking while Finland, Poland and other countries with far less resources move up the Forum's table. Those of us who are familiar with the failing countries can see little evidence of improvement. A major reason for this is the refusal by certain political parties,teachers and other interested parties to admit there is a problem requiring urgent attention.

Read this book. It will open your eyes. Those with entrenched political ideas will, of course, try to denigrate it. This, I know, has already happened in one or two American States.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
*A full executive summary of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: In the recent past the K-12 public education system in the United States has been lackluster at best (some might say deplorable). Not that the various levels of government have not put in a great deal of effort (and money) to try and fix the problem; indeed, numerous attempts at education reform have been tried over the past 20 years or so, and the US currently spends more on public education per student than any other nation. Still, all of these good intentions (and boatloads of money) have achieved relatively little in terms of results. When compared with other developed nations, for example, American high school students currently rank 12th in reading, 17th in science, and a paltry 26th in math. These numbers would be concerning even at the best of times, but with the nation currently struggling through a seemingly endless economic slow-down, and with the global economy becoming increasingly competitive (and modern jobs requiring more and more advanced cognitive skills all the time), these numbers are very troubling indeed.

All is not lost, though. Other nations have shown that they are able to achieve far better academic results using far less money, and thus we may deem it high time that we investigate just what the leading nations are doing different that has allowed them to be so successful. It is this very project that journalist Amanda Ripley sets for herself in her new book 'The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way'.

Ripley focuses her attention on the education systems of 3 countries in particular: South Korea, Finland and Poland. South Korea and Finland are chosen due to their being on top of the world when it comes to academic results, while Poland is chosen since it has recently been able to improve academic outcomes greatly despite the fact that the country faces many of the same challenges as the US--including especially a high rate of child poverty.

When it comes to the author's approach in the book, it is very much that of the investigative journalist: Ripley relies heavily on interviews with specific players in the education systems of the various countries at play (including students, teachers, principals, and politicians); and her main sources are 3 American exchange students (Eric, Kim and Tom) who spend a year immersed in the education systems of the respective countries.

When it comes to South Korea, we find that this country's edge in education has to do mainly with the very intense motivation and hard work on the part of the students. This is a culture where it is no exaggeration to say that most students spend every waking minute on school work: students spend all day at school, eat dinner at school, and then proceed from there to private tutoring schools (called hagwons), where they study right up until bed-time (and often beyond it). The reason for this intense focus on education is that there is very fierce competition to be accepted into one of the few best universities in the country, and only those who score in the top 2% on a single test at the end of high school are allowed in (a set of circumstances that most Koreans actually resent, but which they nonetheless feel compelled to play along with).

In Finland we find that academic outcomes are on par with those in South Korea, but that the students here have achieved these results without the same level of acute devotion displayed in South Korea. Indeed, Finland's edge in education appears to derive not so much from excessive studying, but from its very high quality of teachers--which begins with Finland's exceptional teachers' colleges. Specifically, the country's few accredited teachers' colleges are very selective in terms of who they accept, and the teacher education programs in Finland are themselves very lengthy and rigorous.

In Poland we find that the country's improvements in academic outcomes as of late may be attributed to a host of recent reforms. These include the ratcheting up of the country's education curriculum and standards; the awarding of more funds to vocational schools and schools that under-perform in terms of academic outcomes; and the delaying of the streaming of students (i.e., separating students into academic and vocational classes).

Beyond their peculiarities, we find that there is one thing that all 3 countries have in common (which is also shared by all nations that perform well when it comes to academics); and that is that they all maintain very high educational expectations and standards, and these standards are consistently tested in a way that holds real consequences for the students and their future prospects.

The good thing about Ripley's approach is that it gives us an insider's look into the education systems of the various countries discussed. This approach is particularly good at unearthing specific insights with regards to effective educational practices. However, the approach does have its drawbacks compared with one that is more scientific in nature, and broader in scope. Ideally, it would have been nice to see Ripley combine the two approaches in her book. Still, Ripley has done very well with the approach that she has chosen, and there are many important insights here. A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.
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How does this book take the debate on?

As a Brit, I read this for the journalists angle.

There are plenty of writers critiquing educational rigorous and reforms in the UK, Daisy Critsadoulou and Robert Peal, as the reactionary young guns, with more experienced voices such as John Bangs, John Hattie and others contributing more sophisticated analysis of what needs to happen for education to become more effective.

Whilst certainly an easy read, this compare and contrast exercise is formulaic and superficial. There seem to be few new insights here. Taking the views of pupils into consideration is generally considered good practice and surveys are a regular feature of good schools here.

The summary points seem to be that education is a serious business that students need to take seriously. They do this best when their teachers are well educated and well trained - like in Finland or Poland, or where education is permitted to dominate the lives of pupils as in Korea. Kids benefit from robust exams that they have to take seriously. They work best where work is a challenge, where feedback is simple and direct.

Her worries are that countries such as the USA and the UK pay rather more attention to the bells and whistles of ICT than they do to ensuring they have well trained teachers, providing a robust curriculum. Whilst the quality of schools vary in the UK, examinations are consistently challenging, even if some have been made tougher in recent years.

As Christodoulou's constant reference point was OFSTED reports, Ripley's is the PISA studies. Clearly, these studies are useful, but it is surely debatable whether an intermediate measure of secondary attainment is sufficient as a measure?

Academics have produced work on the key differences between education systems, better still would be Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahiberg's analysis as an insider on Finland's system. Ripley was most in awe of this system, one which promotes aspirations to high attainment irrespective of the sociology-economic background of the child, and which has something to offer both to the UK and The USA, not least in the promotion of high aspirations for all children. Good Charter schools do this so do good Academies in the UK, but so to do good comprehensives. in fact, Ripley is right, when you look at what good schools do, this is a key element, but it is all good schools - not just the ones she looked at.

The problem we have in the UK is that political elites have polarised the academic debate so we have so called ’progressive' v traditional academic dichotomy. Whether most schools are like this is debatable. In my school we do things that build pupil knowledge, understanding of how to use this knowledge oh and how to pass exams. (Yes, like all good schools, most of us teach to the exam.) This promotes student confidence that what they are doing is meaningful, and therefore worthy of their efforts.

What bugs me a little about this book is that it's another person with little teaching experience finding the things she is looking for in the educational systems where she expects to find them. So, despite 50% of this book being references and appendices it is not really a serious academic book.

For all that, it is accessible and well written, as you would expect from a journalist with a good laypersons understanding of education.

As an ebook I overpaid for this £9 for half a book! £5 would be value for money.
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on 3 March 2015
Amanda Ripley begins this book explaining she is a meagre journalist who knows little of the parameters which define an efficient and well run educational system. Yet at the end of this book, she leaves the reader with an impression that she is close to mastering the matter such is the diligent manner in which she conveys information.

In the second chapter of this book Amanda Ripley spends many overly drawn out pages describing the life of a poor American student Kim, who is soon to be transplanted to Finland. This chapter seems overly detailed on the feelings of Kim and I feared that this book was going to be an emotive journalistic and anecdotal book with little int he way of facts to back it up. Gladly I was wrong. Amanda Ripley weaves both journalism and hard fact into an incredibly enjoyable book on immense flaws of the American education system and the superiority of the education in South Korea, Poland and Finland. However she translates a work-life balance to her arguments by demonstrating the inverse of sporting superiority of the States versus the soft South Koreans.

This book will leave one with a sense of what makes an education system great (mainly fantastic teachers) and what countries around the world need to do to ameliorate their own education systems in order to avoid The Great Degeneration as covered by Niall Ferguson.
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on 24 June 2015
Interesting book and easy to read. Having first hand descriptions of what it was like to be a student in the different countries around the world really brought the statistics to life. I'm not sure the Finnish schools were represented wholly accurately. My understanding from reading books and articles by Pasi Sahlberg is that Finnish children are not tested until the last year of school. This book focusses on that last year when Finnish children are preparing for the only high stakes testing they do. So the description is not representative of the rest of their school experience. I would agree that yes, more rigour is a good idea, and better educated and better trained teachers will be part of the solution. However, I'm not sure how this helps those children who will not pass more rigorous exams as long as we fail to value other skills and talents and take success in these into account when measuring how "smart" children are. The PISA test is only one measure of "smartness" and the test itself has a number of flaws.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 November 2013
If you care about education, and believe that education shapes life chances and outcomes, then you will enjoy reading this book. Looking at the experience of US exchange students in South Korea, Finland, and Poland and comparing the educational perfomance of these countries with the USA in particular, the book comes to some clear conclusions about what matters, and what doesn't, in creating the skills needed to succeed in the modern world.

Focusing on maths and problem solving skills the author makes clear the importance of rigour in learning, parental involvement in developing reading, and a clear understanding within communities that education is the key to prosperity and a better life. Having and maintaining high expectations of teachers and students comes through as the strongest element of all in achieving better learning.

Paradoxically, although this book has been superbly researched, and is enjoyable to read it lacks some rigour and high expectations of its own audience. Much of the book is written in a very journalistic style - lots of personal back stories, lots of human interest, and not enough clear facts and analysis. It could be that editors, in pursuing sales to the widest possible audience, 'dumbed down' the writing a little. As the author says she was trying (and encouraged) to write a book about education that was not boring - so what about high expectations for its readership? The appendices go some way to adressing this, but it would been a stonger work if these had been woven into the main text.

Well worth reading though
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on 27 January 2015
Highly recommend, especially for parents. Love the characters and stories and feel I learned so much. As an American living abroad I am deeply hopefully that the US injects more rigour into its academic area of school. In terms of how it recruits and trains teachers and in terms of how we expect the best from our kids
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on 25 January 2014
Very interesting insight into the world of education. Perhaps the best thing, however, is that Ripley is a really good storyteller.

100% worth the investment if you are interested in education.
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on 20 November 2014
Very insightful. Must read for parents, parents-to-be, teachers and teachers-to-be who can actually do something about kids' education. Highly recommended!!
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